Back in Victorian Britain, urban areas were devastated by water-borne cholera epidemics that killed thousands of poor city-dwellers. Ordinary people were at the mercy of the market, which saw water as a source of profit rather than a human right, and a government that said ‘there’s nothing we can do’.
Site of the 1854 Cholera Outbreak in Soho, London
‘Why does it have to be this way?’ That’s the question that a group of leaders - clergy, Quakers, physicians and other rebels who wouldn’t accept the inevitability of social injustice - asked. They got organised. They took action locally and nationally. They persuaded local authorities to take the handles off dodgy water pumps that drew water from cesspools. They organised their money to build thousands of beautiful public water fountains that turned safe drinking water from the preserve of the rich into a public good.
Victorian era water fountain at St Pancras
They challenged the idea that only the market should provide water, as a commodity to be bought and sold. They demanded that the government intervene to make sure that everyone had access to safe drinking water. Thanks to them, by the end of the 19th century cholera had been eradicated in the UK. Thanks to them, by the middle of the twentieth century almost everyone in the UK had access to safe, cheap drinking water in their own home. Thanks to them, water came to be seen as a human right and a public good.
Britain has some of the safest and most delicious tap water in the world, free at the point of use, and available at the turn of a tap. So how come we have allowed multi-national corporations (looking to shore up profits from falling sales of sugary drinks, by the way) to flog us the very same water (tap water faces higher quality tests than bottled) for 500 times the cost of filling it at a tap?
What's more, they are flogging it to us in a plastic bottle, the single biggest pollutant of our environment (despite being highly-recyclable, only 25% ever are). People in the UK use 8 billion plastic water bottles a year and they are being produced at the rate of 20,000 a minute across the world. While our ancestors won universal access to safe drinking water, we have allowed the market to re-commodify water, turning it from a public good to the ultimate individual consumer convenience product, at huge environmental cost.
The Greenbelt Festival has just become a member organisation of Citizens UK. Last year they banned single-use plastics from their festival. Now Greenbelt and Citizens UK are asking the question about bottled water: 'Why does it have to be this way?'. The simple answer: 'It doesn't!'.
But it won't change by itself. We'll need to get organised and take action. Our new campaign will use community organising techniques, the inspiration of past social movements, and the role of water in the Abrahamic faiths to build on Greenbelt's pioneering stance to ban plastic bottles at last year's festival. We'll be training an interfaith group of 'Young Green Rebels' to restore free access to public drinking water. We'll be taking a community-based approach which can be copied by any Greenbelter and Citizens UK leader who wants to join the campaign.
One of a new generation of water fountains, Borough Market
The campaign has three stages:
- Leading an audit of single-use plastic in your own church, mosque, synagogue, school or community organisation;
- Mapping water 'deserts' in your neighbourhood, and signing up local Refill Stations;
- Campaigning for more public water fountains in your community.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King (who was himself paraphrasing the prophet Amos) we want to see justice spring up like a mighty water fountain, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream of Refill stations...
Get in touch if you would like to get involved.